Artisanal cheese merchant takes retail space in Washington

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

For the past several years, Emerald Valley Artisans of Scenery Hill has had glowing success selling its artisanal cheeses to restaurants and other commercial food outlets across Pennsylvania.

Now the company, which makes 11 different types of hard cheeses from locally produced cow’s milk as well as two versions of ricotta cheese, is testing the retail market on Main Street in Washington.

Emerald Valley co-founder Alisa Fava Fasnacht said the “pop-up” store at 145 S. Main St., has the potential to become a permanent location if the company sees ample demand from walk-in customers.

The store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It is closed on Sunday and Monday.

Humble beginnings

During a pre-opening event for family and friends on Wednesday evening, guests were treated to many of Emerald Valley’s cheeses, which Fasnacht said evolved from relatively humble beginnings at her parents’ dairy farm on Fava Farm Road in Scenery Hill, just behind the Century Inn.

“In October 2004, my mother and I just started playing around with batches of fresh ricotta cheese,” she said. Those batches were shared with friends who kept asking for more, although Fasnacht today is modest about the early effort.

“I look back at it now and think that cheese wasn’t probably very good,” she said.

But the experimentation launched what became a full-scale endeavor over the next few years until Emerald Valley Artisans was formed four years ago as Alisa and her husband Alan Fasnacht perfected their skill with a variety of hard cheeses from classic cheddar to Swiss and several other styles, all using milk from cows at the family farm or sourced from other local dairy farmers.

The humble ricotta that began as an experiment all those years ago has been elevated to a signature cheese called Ricotta Chiesi in honor of the Fava family’s cousins who still live in Italy’s Po Valley region – the Fava family’s ancestral home. The artisanal version is pressed while still warm to give it a firmer structure, has a salt rind and is infused with truffles.

Today, Fasnacht said, Emerald Valley is firmly ensconced in the farm to table movement that stresses locally sourced food products.

Some of the company’s products have earned top honors in state and national competitions. In addition to the Fasnachts, Alisa’s sister Racquelle Fava Rockwell is the company’s sales manager, and there are several part-time employees.

“We have expanded to be primarily a wholesaler of our cheese,” she said, with major customers including Paragon Food, Gordon Food and their biggest buyer, Parkhurst Food Service, the commercial subsidiary of Eat n’ Park restaurants hospitality group. Parkhurst operates numerous casual dining restaurants, including the Porch at Siena in Upper St. Clair and Porch at Schenley and Six Penn Kitchen in Pittsburgh.

“Parkhurst is our biggest customer,” Fasnacht said, adding that with the help of the other food wholesale companies with which it does business, including one in Lancaster, Emerald Valley’s cheeses are being enjoyed across Pennsylvania and points south to the Stonewall Jackson resort in West Virginia.

Chefs’ choice

Even area chefs are getting involved with creative presentations of Emerald Valley’s cheeses, she said, including Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors and Kevin Hermann of Porch at Siena, who made a cheesecake with the company’s seasonal orange-cranberry-apple French-style cream cheese.

Fasnacht said the decision to try a retail component in addition to the company’s success as a wholesaler comes at a time when the Pittsburgh region is rising to prominence as a creative food center.

“Pittsburgh is such an amazing food scene,” Fasnacht said, adding that Emerald Valley “is always evolving” to continue to be a part of the region’s food transformation.

At the South Main Street location, she said, the store will be able to create gift baskets for customers and plans to feature other area artisanal food in addition to its own products.

She said the retail site represents a place “where we have long wanted to run a thread through everything that’s been this interesting journey of ours,” she said. “We wanted to pick the very best of that artistry and bring it here.”

She added that with the city now boasting two distilleries, a winery and a microbrewery, the time was ripe to open a retail operation for artisanal cheese.

“There’s some really good things going on here,” she said.